The XX Factor

What You Do Matters, But What You Say Counts

How much does it matter when a gorgeous, powerful woman takes the stage and preaches that in a biblical home, a man is the head and a woman must submit-but goes on to describe, and live, her own extremely egalitarian life with her “head-of-the-house” husband? When she’s the creator of a ministry of books, videos, and conferences but says she does nothing without her husband’s permission and his blessing? That’s Priscilla Shirer, Dallas housewife, author, motivational preacher, and subject of ” Housewives of God ” in this Sunday’s New York Time s magazine. In everything but words, she’s got an enviably strong companionate marriage. But she calls it “complementarian,” meaning that her God-given gender complements her husband’s, but he is at all times in charge. If her life belies her words, how much do those words matter?

A lot. As author Molly Worthen delicately follows the ways Shirer’s daily routine differs from her message (Shirer’s husband does his share of the housework so she can study and write, they leave their children with his mother when they travel for her work, but “Priscilla insists she submits to Jerry-especially in the family’s bigger decisions”) the paradox comes becomes clear. Shirer is the author, teacher, and minister (following in the footsteps of her father, Tony Evans, who founded one of the great national “megachurches” years ago) who has created her own powerful empire. Shirer may indeed allow her husband to be in charge. But the word allow changes everything.

Shirer’s lip service to the idea of male dominance enables marriages that are far less egalitarian than hers. Her message, as Jocelyn Anderson, author and Christian domestic violence victim would say, is “submission, submission, submission.” But submission as an option-as Worthen puts it “embrac[ing] the submitted life”-is not truly submission. Deference, perhaps. But calling voluntary deference “submission” is like calling consensual sex “rape” just because there are handcuffs involved. It muddies the waters for everyone, and makes it more difficult for women who face demands for real submission to see things as they really are.

If Shirer’s compromise works for her, that’s fine. But she should be honest within her ministry and tell the women who flock to her appearances that a “complementarian” marriage works only if it’s based on egalitarian beliefs. She’s clearly chosen her role. She should use it to ensure that other women know that they also have a choice.

Photograph of megachurch by Barry Williams for Getty Images.